Risk assessment of violent extremist offenders: facilitating a measured response
There are significant knowledge gaps relating to the extent of the problem of radicalisation and violent extremist contagion in prison, as well as the risk of recidivism among released extremist offenders.
In recent years, the deradicalisation and reintegration of convicted terrorists has become one of the most rapidly developing areas in the area of countering violent extremism. Over the last decade (and some far before that), several countries have introduced policies to manage and facilitate the re-entry process of extremist prisoners back into society (e.g. in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka).
Most experts agree that this specific group of prisoners requires special attention, as it poses unique (management) challenges to the corrections system whilst incarcerated as well as to society during reintegration. However, there are significant knowledge gaps relating to the extent of the problem of radicalisation and violent extremist contagion in prison, as well as the risk of recidivism among released extremist offenders.
Given the institutional, methodological and financial challenges, where should correction systems focus their attention on in order to obtain relevant data that will inform the development and implementation of more effective interventions and policy measures? The answer – though for sure not the complete solution as such – is appropriate risk assessment tools and procedures. Risk assessments for violent extremists are intended to identify the risks, motivations, criminogenic needs and vulnerabilities of violent extremists at a given point in time and within a given context. Importantly, risk assessment needs to happen not only as part of the intake process, but be repeated periodically or whenever specific events require it, in order to assess changes in thought and behaviour over time and implement interventions and policy measures accordingly. As such, these assessments can also help to assess the success rate of certain interventions and rehabilitation programmes. Similarly, violent extremism risk assessment tools may be applied to those “ordinary” offenders that are suspected of becoming radicalised whilst incarcerated.
Given that most experts and practitioners agree that violent extremists represent a population with different risk indicators from ordinary violent offenders, they require a specific risk assessment approach. Importantly, such tools should be used in combination with other existing violence risk assessment approaches, such as the Historical Clinical Risk Management-20 (HCR-20), in order to obtain a complete and accurate picture of vulnerabilities and psychopathologies. However, to date, only very few of such risk assessment tools specific to violent extremism have been developed, let alone have had sufficient implementation in practice to confirm their construct validity, reliability and effective application across different types of environments and violent extremism typologies. Two promising examples are the UK’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+) and the Violent Extremism Risk Assessment version 2 (VERA-2), both following the structured professional judgment approach to risk assessment and based on extensive terrorism literature reviews. Although the authors of both tools would be the first to state that the identified factors are working hypotheses and that the tools will benefit from further evaluation, they are worth investing in, as they are likely to provide more reliable results than more general tools or unaided approaches.
Hence, in order to improve policies focused on the management and reintegration of violent extremist offenders and acquire the necessary data to this end, investments need to be made in adequate risk assessment approaches for violent extremists. This does not only require the appropriation and adaptation of the right assessment tools, but also the recruiting, vetting and training of staff (including psychologists) and efficient monitoring mechanisms. Although this might seem a big investment at first, it pays itself back quickly in terms of an improved information position and more effective tailor-made correctional interventions and reintegration programmes.